Every once in a while a camera comes along that draws a line in the sand, redefines a segment, and marks a milestone in photography. The first from-the-ground-up dSLR, the Nikon D1, was such a camera. Canon’s consumer-level digital Rebel was such a camera as was Canon’s 5DMKII with its breakthrough video performance. Cameras like this don’t come along everyday, but when they do they mark a fundamental shift and a category maturity for a manufacturer.
Aimed at Sports and wedding photographers, the A9 is positioned to be a camera long-remembered by photographers as a defining moment for Sony and mirrorless cameras. The list of specs is impressive:
- 24 megapixel stacked full frame sensor
- 693 phase detection autofocus points with 93% coverage
- A shooting buffer capable of handling 241 compressed raw files or 362 JPEGs
- 5-axis in body image stabilization
- OLED viewfinder with 120fps refresh
- 4K 24p full frame video
And that’s not all, the A9 has a silent electronic shutter, a highly performant autofocus system capable of 60 autofocus calculations per second, and every Sony fanboy’s favorite spec: 20 frames per second with no viewfinder blackout- making it faster than Canon’s 1Dx and Nikon’s D5.
Yet specs, however impressive they are, don’t make a camera. I’ve had the chance to spend a good amount of time with the A9 and what follows are my impressions of using it day-in and day-out.
Dials and Controls
New Dial & Dial Lock
The first thing you’ll notice about the A9 is the addition of a two stacked dials on the left dedicated to burst mode and focus. This is a nice addition as it saves having to go through the fn options to set the burst and autofocus settings. Both dials have a button lock you have to depress in order to change their settings. The design works well, but I wish there was a more elegant way of locking the dials as I found the press-to-turn process a bit cumbersome. It’s not that the implementation doesn’t work, it’s that it’s difficult to unlock and change settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder. This is especially true of the AF selector which has a tiny push-button unlock mechanism.
AF ON and AEL Buttons
If there is one button I was happy to see it would be: AF ON. Sure you can customize buttons on the A7 cameras to use rear AF, but you shouldn’t have to do that as it takes away from the camera’s customizability.
I personally have no use for the AEL button as I photograph everything on manual, but it is a good addition nonetheless and signals a new focus (no pun intended) on ergonomics from Sony.
While I liked the AF and AEL buttons, I did think they could have been more pronounced. I felt they were a bit too small, and inset, and not as easy to depress or tactilely locate while looking through the viewfinder as they could be. I also felt the AF ON button was a bit too close in proximity and tactile feel to the video recording button (I recorded a couple of nice videos when I thought I was focusing. I also sadly managed to end a video I was recording when I thought I was focusing) I hope Sony moves the recording button in future iterations and makes the AF button tactilely distinct.
The A9 has a joystick dedicated to setting the focus point. This is a fantastic addition! The joystick is exactly where it needs to be and its feel is perfect. The combination of AF ON and the focus joystick make for a much more streamlined shooting experience as you don’t have to move your fingers to all corners of the camera to set and achieve focus. It’s awesome not to have to hit the center dial button to move the autofocus point about as you do with the A7 line.
The Silent Shutter
The first configuration change I made with the A9 was disabling the AF beep as I hate hate hate having to hear a sound everytime the camera achieves focus. Easy enough: go into the camera settings and turn off notifications. With the “beep” disabled, I went to shoot, focused, depressed the shutter and….nothing. The viewfinder didn’t blackout and I didn’t hear the shutter fire. I had to stop and check to see if the camera actually took a photo. That moment was a revelation! You mean I never ever have to stop looking at my subject and, if I want it, I never have to hear a shutter? That’s just plain awesome. By the way, there’s a visual cue in the viewfinder indicating a frame was captured. It’s easy to miss the first time you use the camera, but you quickly know to look for it. Incidentally, you can enable a shutter audio sound if you want.
Sony’s menus have historically been a sore point for anyone switching from Canon or Nikon. Sony cameras offer a lot of configurability, but their menus to date been anything but intuitive. The A9’s menu remedies this by including a custom “My Menu” allowing you to add settings or functions you typically utilize. This means you no longer have to hunt for the “format” menu item to clear your cards.
The Battery and Grip
I own no fewer than 5 batteries for my A7II and I always make sure they are charged before serious outings. The batteries are small and I have to be cognizant of how much charge I have left. For example, I always make sure I have a fresh battery to go just before sunset or sunrise shoots as the last thing I want is to miss a shot because I have to fiddle with the battery.
The A7RII, for example, has a CIPA rating of 290 shots while the A9 clocks in at 480. This is still significantly shorter than a 5DMKIV‘s impressive 900 images per battery through the viewfinder- though it should be noted that the 5DMKIV’s battery clocks in at 300 images using LiveView while the A9 can yield 650 images per CIPA standards.
One result of the larger battery is a wider grip. I like the slightly larger form factor, but I’m sure there are those who disagree. This is largely a matter of preference. Either way, the A9 remains significantly smaller than its Canon or Nikon counterparts.
Viewfinder, Autofocus & Burst Mode
I don’t care if you shoot sloths or plain ‘ol concrete drying exclusively for your day job, nothing puts a smile on a photographer’s face like burst mode- and 20 frames per second sure does the trick! It’s a blast hitting that shutter button, daring the A9’s buffer, and letting the camera fly.
The A9’s autofocus performance is impressive and the camera is, as Sony promises, stable throughout- what this means is I didn’t get it to lock up on me. Also, having no blackout in the viewfinder is fantastic as I mentioned previously. It’s a nice-to-have when shooting slower action, but it’s a godsend when you’re trying to nail a composition during fast-action sequences.
I put the AF through its paces in three tests using a challenging subject: a hyperactive 9yr old cycling down a hill towards the camera (aka Jonah, my son). I executed 3 separate tests using the A9 coupled to a Zeiss 24-70 f/4 lens. The camera was set to AF-C and Lock-on AF: Flexible spot Medium. Two of the tests were down the same hill while the 3rd was performed in an area with tree cover and spotty light in an attempt to challenge the AF system. 20 images from each sequence were placed in the galleries below. Incidentally, I set the lens aperture to f/4 to ensure the resultant focus wasn’t due to depth of field.
AF Test 1
AF Test 2
AF Test 3
Overall the AF was solid. The keeper rate across the tests was very impressive considering the test involved a subject moving towards the camera. I did have a few shots near the end of the sequences as Jonah moved close to the camera. I believe this was due to the focus point shifting away from his face as he approached due to him being in close proximity. Nonetheless, I feel comfortable wielding the A9 for its main calling: sports and action photography.
This was a fun one. I wanted to give the A9 a challenge and also use it in the wild – not in a controlled environment. I wanted to “run and gun” with it and create a video.
Sony’s A9 setup for video with a Manfrotto monopod, shotgun mic, and headphones to monitor audio
As you might know, I’m traveling full-time across the country from Key West to Alaska over the next couple of years in an RV (I’m currently in Montana just outside of Yellowstone National Park and heading east through the summer to arrive in the northeast for the fall colors). If you’re interested in the travel side of things, you can read more about life on the road at ChaseTheSky.com. But I digress. For the A9 video test, I decided to document my wife Jenni’s first jump with SkyDive West Plains in Washington.
A bit of background on the footage: all the on-the-ground video was captured using the A9. All in-air footage utilized a GoPro Hero 4 Black. As it turns out, you can’t take along your own camera with a skydive crew without a significant number of jumps under your belt. It’s also generally not advisable to drop a $4500 camera out of an airplane with someone who’s jumping out of an airplane for the first time (consider that a pro tip!) Incidentally, Jenni and the A9 both survived the video.
Another note on the footage: I wanted to let the camera have control as I shot. With the exception of my hitting the AF button from time-to-time, I let the camera manage video capture. Additionally, I used a Rode on-camera shotgun mic for the audio (note: if you want to get the low-down on capturing audio, be sure to checkout my Microphone 101 post where I walk you through everything from using your earbud’s mic to a pro audio setup).
Alright, finally, the video is below. Be sure stick around to the end for the outtake, you’ll get a kick out of it.
You’ll notice a short bit of the camera going out of focus at 1:20. I had pressed the AF button to see what the camera would do. As you can see, it sought to refocus. I do think focus would have been fine had I left the camera alone. Would it have been better for Sony to have designed the A9 to ignore my focus request? I’ll say no. I want to be able to focus as I want, and I’m glad I was not overridden by the camera.
You’ll also notice the camera went out of focus around 4:15 as the plane rotated off the ground. This was my fault as I had set the focus point to the upper right hand corner of the viewfinder prior while waiting for the plane to taxi and I did not change the focus point during takeoff. I don’t think I would have had focus issues had I used a wider focus area. It was nice to see the A9 recover nicely and track the airplane as it moved past the camera in perfect focus.
I was also pretty impressed with the camera’s ability to focus on the two parachutes in the air against a blue sky. I expected the camera to struggle here because the subjects were small, but I was happy with the results.
Overall on the video, and keep in mind I’m a photographer not a hardcore videographer, I was impressed with the A9‘s ability to focus during video and to handle shifts in dynamic range. You’ll note several times during the in-car footage where the available light shifted, yet the A9 handled the changes well.
The Gestalt of it All
There is no doubt that the Sony A9 is an impressive camera. The AF system is a solid performer even in low-light, and the high resolution no-blackout viewfinder delivers a low-friction shooting experience.
The improvements in battery life feel almost like a return to DSLR battery longevity and the new controls and menus make the camera more intuitive to use than Sony’s A7 line.
But specs, features, button placements, and the like only tell part of the story. What really matters day-to-day is how does the camera feel. Is it in your way? Does it help you get the job done? Is it easy? Is it cumbersome?
All-in-all I’ve really enjoyed the A9 and have no hesitation recommending it- especially for wedding and sports photographers. Yes I have quibbles with the AF ON button design and placement, but overall the camera is intuitive to use and it let’s me easily go about the business of capturing images. You don’t have to work around it. It works with you to let you do what you need to do.
Where to buy:
Sony A9 at B&H
Below are edited images created specifically for this review from a couple of nights in, and around, Seattle.